With the imminent retirement of Dr. Robert Rockaway from the faculty of the Jewish History Department of Tel Aviv University, there will be no faculty member specializing in American Jewish history at the university.
"The Jewish people are fragmenting," Rockaway told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "Jews aren't relating to each other the way they used to," he warned, and it was "short-sighted" for the university not to have a single faculty member specializing in the second-largest Jewish community in the world.
"When all of a sudden it becomes important, and Israelis wake up and say, 'Gee, we should know more about them than just the fact that they're wealthy and buy bonds,' all of a sudden Tel Aviv University won't have this," he lamented. "I think the relevance of the American Jewish community is too great to relegate them to the side in a broader American history course," he said.
Rockaway, who has taught American Jewish history at Tel Aviv University for 35 years after making aliya in 1971, believes that only in an academic setting "can you open people's eyes." He believes that students, and with them all Israelis, would not be able to get a broader perspective or come to know about American Jews "from the newspaper, from sensational things being written by some reporter in Washington."
Tel Aviv University Vice-Rector Prof. Ra'anan Rein told the Post in response that, while no one would replace Rockaway as professor of American Jewish history in the Jewish History Department, "many of the disciplinary boundaries of the past are irrelevant."
"We're going to inaugurate an American studies program next week" which would also teach about American Jews, he explained. "In the General History Department and the English Literature Department, there is always a discussion of the Jewish experience in America, its history and literature. There will still be courses taught and publications coming out of Tel Aviv University on this subject."
"The division between Jewish and general history," he said, "isn't necessarily significant [or clear-cut]." For Rockaway, however, that isn't enough. "The university is in terrible financial condition. I realize and sympathize, and I know there are other needs," he admitted. But studying the Jewish component in the context of a broader subject would not provide the depth or intra-Jewish perspective that should be basic to an Israeli university, he added.
"The values that Jews share: Will they be studied in an American studies program?" he asked. "What does it have to do with the literature? How much can a course on American history cover the Jews? One lecture? Two?" And even if they study American Jewish literature, he demanded angrily, "So what? The Jews didn't just influence American literature, they influenced the labor movement, the socialist movement, liberalism, communism, the neoconservatives, radicalism in all sorts of forms. The influence of Jews in popular music was enormous."
In addition, fundamental issues in American Jewish history will be lost if no one specializes in the American Jewish community itself. "Conversion to Christianity in the United States is higher than ever; intermarriage is at 50%. Don't these issues make a difference to Jewish leaders here? Someone must teach about the American Jewish experience in an ongoing way, about religious changes and social trends."
But Rockaway, who has taught more than 5,000 students since coming to Tel Aviv University, and is famous for his humorous anecdotes and engaging teaching style, was more saddened than angered by the news that he would not be replaced.
"What do I care? I have no vested interest. I'm retiring," he said with a sigh. "But it's a pity. It's really sad. Thousands of students took my classes. It broadened their perspective, gave them a larger sense of a Jewish community." Now, he said, that will be gone.